I have been acquainted with Steve Latham over the years; we have children in the same class. A couple of years ago, I worked parttime with his wife, Jorie, and became familiar with the fact that there was an abundant, well-loved garden on the side of their house in East Hampton. In the late winter of 2009, I asked the Lathams if I could document the garden through the next growing season. I felt it would be a good discipline for myself; an assignment of sorts to keep me outside and continually photographing one of my favorite subjects, Mother Nature. The Lathams agreed, and so for roughly six months I would go by the garden whenever I could and see what was new. Sometimes Steve was out there working, other times he wasn’t. We would chat, and he would fill me in on new events in that fenced yard with raised beds. If I showed up in my car instead of on my bike, he would offer me fresh greens (and more) to take home and enjoy.
The experience had many rewards: I became better acquainted with a gardener who shared in the wonder and admiration of the natural world; I was able to work on my own craft of photography, improving my skills and learning about what kind of photographs I like to make; and I got to be outside and witness firsthand the wonder of Mother Nature at her best. This probably sounds corny, but it is genuinely how I feel! I get great comfort from being in a place like Steve Latham’s garden-planted, nurtured and tended with loving hands, with the added benefit of producing food.
EW: How long have you been gardening and what were your influences/inspirations to garden?
SL: I have been gardening ever since I moved to the East End, more than 30 years ago. Every place that I have lived, I have had a garden of some sort or other.
EW: When did you become a convert to organic gardening?
SL: I lived in Jamesport in the late ’70s, in a small house right next to a farm. I noticed the local farmer spraying his crops with a mask on his face. I’ve been a committed organic gardener ever since.
EW: Where does your interest in gardening come from?
SL: Growing up, I spent my summers on a 200-acre farm in Rhode Island. My grandparents grew vegetables and ran a riding academy, so I spent the summers working in the fields and riding horses. I can still remember riding up to their apple orchard to fill a burlap sack with apples for my grandmother’s pies.
EW: Tell me about your current garden routine.
SL: I have a garden at my home in Springs which is roughly 1,100 square feet. I use raised beds because the soil heats up faster and the soil compaction is kept to a minimum. I also work two plots at EECO Farm and I recently resurrected the vegetable garden at Iacono’s Farm on Long Lane. I was always amazed at the rate of growth at the Iacono’s garden. I have known the Iaconos for more than 25 years. When Sal died, I asked Eileen and Tony if I could plant Sal’s again and they agreed. I grow San Marzano tomatoes for sauce, eggplant, squash, peppers, onions, lettuce and herbs at the farm. I also plant about 15 different types of heirloom tomatoes. Eileen and I both compare notes on our tomato sauce and it gives me great enjoyment to continue something that was so important to Sal.
EW: Iacono’s and EECO Farm are both on Long Land in the Village and your home is about five miles to the north in Springs. Do you notice a difference in the two locations?
SL: The soil at EECO Farm and Iacono’s has much more clay than the soil in Springs, most of which I’ve made from my own compost. I use organic fertilizer at my home garden, but nothing beats chicken manure for growing vegetables! The climate is also remarkably different. The ocean breeze and frequent fog on Long Lane create very different growing conditions than we have in Springs. Keeping track of the two microclimates is both a challenge and great fun.
EW: Do you do all of this yourself?
SL: I guess you could say I am addicted to gardening, but a good friend, John Laudando, is equally addicted and we farm EECO Farm and Iacono’s together. We have a ritual every year on the coldest day in January. We make a roaring fire and open a bottle (or two) of burgundy. Then we get the seed catalogs out and plan our next season!
EW: I understand, you now garden year-round?
SL: A couple of years ago, a neighbor, Eileen Roaman-Catalano showed me some solar-powered cold frames she used to grow greens through the winter. I now have four of my own and I grow mesclun, arugula and spinach through the winter. It’s wonderful to be able to open the cold frame in January and pick fresh greens for dinner. This is no longer a seasonal hobby for me. I feel connected to the earth year-round.
EW: What is the most difficult part of gardening for you?
SL: I think staying ahead of the game is the most challenging aspect of gardening. I love starting the seeds; I love having the garden looking beautiful. Those are the fun and satisfying parts of gardening. But the organization that goes into starting your seeds, transplanting, fertilizing, “hardening off” seedlings outdoors, and succession planting can be a challenge. People underestimate how fast things grow. For as many years as I have been doing this, I still can’t believe that plants will grow as large or fast as they do and invariably some things are too close together. Succession planting is a challenge, but if you master it you can enjoy the same vegetables for many months. Each year I try to add some labor-saving technique to make the job easier. I now harvest salt hay from the wetlands by my home and use it as mulch to keep the weeds down and the moisture in.
EW: What is your favorite time of the day to be in your garden?
SL: I love to be out in the garden very early in the morning. Once May rolls around and several things are in the ground, I try to get out to the garden with a cup of coffee by 5:30 or 6. The ospreys are fishing in the harbor and it’s a great time to see how everything is doing and to think. It’s times like this I wish I were retired!
Ellen Watson, self-proclaimed naturalist, can often be found photographing gardens, farms and fields on the sublime East End.